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Quirky show within a show shines for Annapolis Summer Garden

Fresh faces, fresh approach make for lively theater

By Mary Johnson, For The Baltimore Sun

4:14 PM EDT, July 3, 2013

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For two evenings last week, heavy rains delayed the scheduled opening of Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's current show, which seemed appropriate for a musical titled "[title of show] (clean version)" and about the obstacle-laden process of creating a musical.

That odd title refers to the first question that must be answered on a form required to enter the New York Musical Theatre Festival competition.

In the show, characters Jeff and Hunter submit the form and accept the challenge of creating a show in three weeks.

Summer Garden is introducing a large segment of its audience, and this reviewer, to an unfamiliar show that injects cheeky comedy into the musical form. This unpretentious show follows the grand "backstage musical" tradition, but with a delightful twist in revealing the arduous, anxiety-ridden process of creating an actual show.

Adding to the fresh approach of the show, the director, music director and the four actors in the cast are each making their Summer Garden debuts.

Director Rachael Murray describes this show as being "as far from a traditional musical as you can get, but in many ways a tribute that exhibits great understanding of the form."

The show is about four friends — Jeff, Hunter, Susan and Heidi — dealing with their own self-doubts while believing in one another, and in their common vision to create a musical capable of winning the competition.

Under Murray's direction, with music direction by Laura Brady, the production moves smoothly and swiftly with gusto and exuberance, in tune with uncommon musical sensibility displayed by the four singing actors.

The 90-minute show runs without intermission, infusing spontaneity from the cast. They engage and hold the audience's attention throughout the plot's highs and lows.

Far from the more familiar Summer Garden musicals, with their elaborate sets and large cast, here the action takes place in a minimalist set: a simple workplace defined by assorted office chairs, with scenes changed by recorded voice messages announcing progress or nonsense. In one scene, a series of playbills from obscure shows is projected to underscore the show's veneration of the Broadway musical art form theme.

In a strong Summer Garden Theatre debut, Thomas Peter plays aspiring tunesmith Jeff with an awestruck innocence. He quickly determines how easy creating a show seems, asking collaborator Hunter, "Will everything I say from now on be in our show?"

Seemingly spontaneous, Jeff is efficiently business-like, without pretense and dryly comic, especially when correcting Hunter's grammar lapses. As a singer, Peter does well by every song, expressing Jeff's fear of confronting the blank page in "Original Musical" and holding his own in duets with Hunter and as part of the harmonious quartet.

An actor-singer who is also a director and choreographer, Christopher Overly displays sharp comedic timing and vocal skills as aspiring music writer Hunter. In his solo "The Tony Award Song," and in duets with Jeff, Overly delivers the goods while retaining a natural spontaneity and self-effacing humor.

Angela Sullivan is the dynamic Susan, comically longing to be free of her restrictive office manager desk job and reluctantly tolerating lesser status to the collaborating male creative team. Her expressive singing adds charm to her every note, and she especially adds beguiling wit to "Secondary Characters," a duet with Heidi. She leads in the song "Die, Vampire, Die" about the self-doubt that wakens actors in the middle of the night.

As Heidi, Anastasia Sophia Herne displays a fine sense of comedy and stage presence and natural charm. In addition to delightful duets with Sullivan's Susan, Herne delivers a high of the evening in her heartfelt "A Way Back to Then," recalling backyard childhood memories, with the affecting lyric, "I've been waiting my whole life to find a way back to then."

Best together in song and lively dance, the quartet does well with a score that's filled with clever lyrics, though short on hummable tunes.

Music director Brady is not only a gifted piano accompanist, but also naturally entertaining on stage as show accompanist Mary.

In sum, "[title of show] (clean version)" is an offbeat little gem that's a quirky tribute to the Broadway musical. It entertains and enlightens, sometimes exposing our own inadequate knowledge, and delivers an upbeat message that belief in yourself can lead to unimaginable success.

Continuing weekends through July 20, "[title of show] (clean version)" is at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise St., Annapolis. Tickets are available at summergarden.com, or call the box office at 410-268-9212.

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has also announced that the troupe will present Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" oat 8:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Tickets are $15.